8 Powerful Jewish Meditations

Jewish meditation is a subject usually neglected in Jewish education settings. While some students in religious schools are encouraged to fulfil their obligation of “service of God” (avodat Hashem), and though they do seek guidance in this service, meditation. These meditations are adapted from Aryeh Kaplan’s Jewish Meditation: A Practical Guide (Shocken Books, 1985). Meditations 1-7 are adapted from chapter 3, titled “Techniques,” and meditation 8 is adapted from chapter 12, titled “Relating to God.”


Meditation #1 – Organize Your Life

Step 1: Choose a relaxing location. For example, take a walk around the block, sit on a comfortable chair, a relaxing bath. Make sure you won’t be disturbed while you will be meditating.

Step 2: Choose the topic. It can address fundamental questions like “what do I ultimately want out of life?” or “what gives my life meaning?” Or, you may take a detailed approach choosing topics like improving one of your personal relationships (e.g. with your spouse, child, etc.).

Step 3: Set a timer and begin thinking about the chosen topic only, don’t let your mind wander.


Meditation #2 – Finding God

Step 1: Choose a relaxing location. For example, take a walk around the block, sit on a comfortable chair, a relaxing bath. Make sure you won’t be disturbed while you will be meditating.

Step 2: Choose how you want to discover God. You can seek God who is “out there” by reflecting on questions like “How did the world come into existence?” or “Why does the world exist?” The second way is to discover God who is “in here” by reflecting on matters like the soul and providence.

Step 3: Set a timer and begin thinking about the chosen topic only, don’t let your mind wander.


Meditation #3 – Dialogue with God

Step 1: Choose a relaxing location. For example, take a walk around the block, sit on a comfortable chair, a relaxing bath (unless you feel a bath would be an inappropriate setting for talking with God). Make sure you won’t be disturbed while you will be meditating.

Step 2: Engage with God by striking up a conversation. It can be done in thought only or be speaking out loud. Here you have a choice whether to keep the conversation completely unstructured or to have an agenda.

Step 3: Set a timer, begin the conversation with God and don’t let your mind wander.


Meditation #4 – Torah Verses

Step 1: Choose a quiet location. Make sure you won’t be disturbed while you will be meditating.

Step 2: Choose a verse from the Bible, it can be at random, or you may choose one that relates to your particular interest.

Step 3: Choose how you want to use the verse. Option one, you can read and memorize the verse and use it as a point of departure for an unstructured meditation. Option two, you may write the verse on a piece of paper and during the course of meditation, reread the verse, directing your mind back to the verse from time to time.

Step 4: Set a timer, begin reading the verse and don’t let your mind wander.


Meditation #5 – Visualizations

Step 1: Choose a quiet location. Make sure you won’t be disturbed while you will be meditating.

Step 2: Choose a verse from the bible or any Jewish saying or teaching can be used. Alternatively, the subject of your contemplation can be a candle flame, a flower, or some other object.

Step 3: The verse/teaching/object should be placed before you and you are to gaze at it and not let your sight wander. You can either let your thoughts  wander or a more advanced level, clear your mind of anything but the verse/teaching/object. For object visualizations, the key becomes to examine every details.

Step 4: Set a timer, start your visual meditation and don’t let your mind wander.


Meditation #6 – Mantras

Step 1: Choose a quiet location. Make sure you won’t be disturbed while you will be meditating.

Step 2: Choose a verse from the bible or any Jewish saying or teaching can be used. Alternatively, you can use a word or phrase, the recommended phrase by Rabbi Nachman of Breslov was “Ribono Shel Olam” (“Master of the world”).

Step 3: Set a timer and repeat the verse over and over again and don’t let your mind wander.


Meditation #7 – Taste & Smell

Step 1: Choose a quiet location. Make sure you won’t be disturbed while you will be meditating.

Step 2: Familiarize yourself with the blessing over food, spices (recited at Havdallah), the words and their meaning.

Step 3: Begin the blessing, recite each word slowly, thinking about its meaning and let the enjoyment of the taste/smell be the meditative experience. Don’t be rushed and don’t let your mind wander.


Meditation #8 – Postures

Step 1: Choose a quiet location. Make sure you won’t be disturbed while you will be meditating.

Step 2: Familiarize yourself with the first blessing of the Shmona Esreh prayer, the words and their meaning. Also familiarize yourself with the standing and bowing postures that traditionally accompanies the prayer. The positions are a standing pose (with your hands placed over your heart), a two step bow (drop knees first, then bow), a slow rise (like a snake).

Step 3: Begin the prayer, beginning with the three steps back and three forward, etc. Keep your eyes shut the entire time and recite each word slowly, thinking about its meaning and don’t let your mind wander.


Meditation on Human Suffering

Consider an idea as a three dimensional object. There are six directions: up, down, right, left, forward, back.
  • Back: Past human suffering weighs upon us like a yoke. The inter-generational trauma prevents us from seeing a way forward.
  • Forward: The future of suffering is almost inevitable. We must share the stories and the trauma of the past for the future generations to prevent the suffering of others.
  • Left: Suffering may cause us to panic and to seal up our emotions, to restrict contact with others.
  • Right: Suffering may cause us to go manic and to open up our emotions, to share with others.
  • Up: Suffering may cause us to reach our true potential.
  • Down: Suffering may cause us to sabotage ourselves from reaching success.
  • Center: Suffering may be held within us, or we may let it go, or we may think of it like a passing wind, passing through us, providing us with a new perspective.

Open Source Haggadah

Due to the rush before Passover, our forefathers ran so fast we didn’t let the bread rise.

So too, this year, my version of the Open Source Haggadah has been a bit rushed.


What to Expect at the Passover Seder

Passover – A Jewish Plan for Cultural Revolution

The Kabbalah of Video Games

Did the Story of Passover Really Happen

All four PDFs are also on Google Drive.

Chag Sameach! Happy Passover!

2 Jews, 3 Opinions: The Psychology of Perception

By Atara Kaye

Joe makes a Hanukkah party and invites all his friends, he spends a lot of money, time and energy in preparation and is so excited that it will be a success. The party comes along and all his friends arrive, he thinks everything will be great! However he hears the doorbell ring and Uncle Sam who is NOT invited, is at the door. Sam is rude and obnoxious, he always makes a mess with the food and is rude to your friends. YOU CANNOT have Sam at the party!


There’s that old Jewish saying “two Jews, three opinions” which is usually interpreted along the lines of Jewish being argumentative or enjoying a good debate, but this saying can also illustrate the idea in psychology of perception. Needless to say, this psychological concept of perception is a universal idea, applying to all people, not just Jews.

How does perception work? Take the way different people might react when hearing the scenario of Joe and his Hanukkah party dilemma. Reactions can differ drastically, with some emphasizing with Joe and others thinking the scenario not to be such an issue, and would instead see it from Sam’s point of view. Some might be outraged and feel that if it happened to them, their party would be completely ruined. Some would justify kicking Sam out of the house, others would likely run to their room and cry. Referring back to that Jewish proverb, some will be conflicted and respond with several (even contradictory) responses of how to deal with this scenario. But why do people have different responses to the same situation and perceive the same exact scenario so very differently? 

Each and every person’s life is unique, and so is the individual’s perception of events, even where multiple people share that same experience. The reason is that people do not perceive the event exactly as a replica of the world, rather it is coloured by a mixture of their experiences. Their past experiences are stored in their long term memory and helps them understand what is happening right in front of them by comparing this event to past experiences. In psychology, this is called top-down processing (Westen, Burton & Kowalski, 2006). Such as, in the past Joe didn’t like Sam, so Joe will now perceive Sam as a threat. The fact that Joe even remember who Sam is, comes from the retrieval of his semantic memory, which then transfers information from his long term memory, to help identify the present situation.

Our varied reactions to the same event also has to do with the way we develop expectations (or schemas) for how events should be. As with our perception, this too is shaped by our memories of previous experiences. For example, Joe’s idea of an awesome party has to do with his idea of a fun time which usually involves hanging out with his friends. Those pleasant memories do NOT include Sam. So with the arrival of Sam at the party, Joe gets upset that his expectation of a fun time is now being ruined. By contrast, other people would have fond memories of a super awesome party that almost always including that one annoying guy who always shows up. For those people, a party is fun regardless of someone like Sam attending, and it’s likely that without him the party just wouldn’t be the same…

For another example of schemas, check out this visual illusion based on individual perception.

The practical benefits of understanding the idea of perception include helping us understand our own emotional responses. If we have a strong reaction to something, we might reflect on the situation and ask ourselves what our reaction was and why? What previous experiences might be shaping our current responses? Was our reaction legitimate or unfounded in the current situation? By recognising that our perception of an event is unique, based on our past experiences, we can be more aware of our personal responses. And through this kind of reflection we can examine if our initial reaction is really appropriate.

This can also help us in relationships with our partners, family members or friends; when we reflect on other people’s initial reactions or responses we can recognise that their response can be based on a previous negative or positive experience. Through this reflection and deeper understanding of another’s perception, we can be more sensitive to them and better understand how to love and support each other..

The next time you are in a situation and find yourself arguing with your friends or family about how you should respond, think about the psychology of perception. The way each individual experiences the situation is unique, shaped by our personal histories; our initial reactions may need to be moderated accordingly. When one reflects on how they perceive the situation, they can have more control over their responses and strengthen their relationships through a balanced response.

Questions to think about.

  • How would you respond to the arrival of an uninvited guest?
  • How would you like to respond, when an uninvited guests comes to your party?
  • Or take this reflection further, how would you like to respond to an unscheduled change that can be perceived as negative?

See this video of a great way to deal with a similar situation such as Joe and his Hanukkah party dilemma.

BBC. (2010). Try The McGurk Effect! – Horizon: Is Seeing Believing? – BBC Two. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G-lN8vWm3m0&feature=youtu.be&t=31s

Oliver, Joe. (2011). The Unwelcome Party Guest – an Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT) Metaphor. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VYht-guymF4

Westen, D., Burton, L. J., & Kowalski, R. (2006). Psychology: Sensation and Perception. Australian and New Zealand edition. John Wiley & Sons Australia, Ltd. pp. 161-173.

Chabad in South Dakota?

By Dovi Seldowitz

Chabad takes an important step forward in positioning itself as the guardian of Jewish continuity in the United States.

A few weeks ago, news of Chabad’s first permanent representative to South Dakota made headlines (see here & here). Rabbi Mendel & Mussie Alperowitz, and their two children will be the newly established Chabad of South Dakota. Chabad had previously sent young “Roving Rabbis” to South Dakota for short visits to local Jews.

Reporting on the size of the community is difficult. News outlets report the community size to be around 400. On the optimistic end is Rabbi Alperowitz, who stated there may be close to a thousand Jews in the state. On the conservative end is the National Jewish Data Bank who estimate that the state’s Jewish population is just 345 which is down from 760 from some 35 years ago (Dashefsky & Sheskin, 2013). An even smaller figure of just 250 was listed in the appendix to the 2014 edition of the American Jewish Yearbook, in their breakdown based on city and county (see tables below).

sd1Rabbi Alperowitz certainly has a challenging task ahead. This is a Jewish community so small, it appears to have no Jewish Day school, as the 2015 census of Jewish Day schools show the figures for South Dakota as blank (Shick, 2005). A Jewish Day School is an obvious requirement for an Orthodox family and a key instrument of Jewish communal survival.

These challenges notwithstanding, we can imagine, given Chabad’s success in other areas, it will continue to raise Jewish awareness among South Dakota’s Jews, including those who previously had little to do with the organised American Jewish community. Jewish sociologists and demographers studying contemporary Jewry might have something to learn or discover about remote Jewish communities. And this can come about through engagement with Chabad shluchim in these areas.

sd2For Chabad, the symbolic achievement of a shliach in South Dakota is tremendous, as it is the last of the 50 states to have a permanent Chabad presence. For the general Jewish community, this is a further step in the process of Chabad, a Chasidic group with a particular focus on Jewish mysticism, becoming a central component of Jewish continuity in the United States.


Dashefsky, Arnold, and Ira Sheskin. American Jewish Year Book 2013. The Jewish Demography Project. Springer. (2013).

Schick, Marvin. A Census of Jewish Day Schools in the United States, 2003-2004. Jerusalem: Avi Chai, 2005.

Mikvah: The Secret of Jewish Sisterhood

By Atara Kaye

The practice of mikvah was a conscious choice made Jewish women throughout history…. Contemporary studies of Jewry rebut claims that Jewish women are oppressed in this regard.

Mikvah, the ritual bath used by many Jewish women to purify themselves after their menstruation, is a subject of great significance to the Jewish People. It’s a ritual that traditional Jewish communities held sacred for thousands of years, one universally practiced in Orthodox Jewish communities today.

Contemporary Jews who are critical of the ritual maintain that mikvah oppresses the Jewish woman to be ‘sex ready’ and clean for their husbands. They assume that this ritual bath for women is forced upon them; they have no choice but to perform this hateful archaic ritual, a relic of an ancient world. Furthermore, the critics would understand this women’s ritual as an instrument of a patriarchy disgusted by menstrual bleeding, declared menstruating women as dirty and unclean. This fear by men was the reason for Jewish men to force their wives to accept oppressing laws that forbid intercourse during menstruation and took as far as forbidding the husband and wife to eat from the same plate of food. This fearful rite translated in Jewish women dreading their monthly menstruation, expecting to be met by the rejection by their spouses due to this oppressing ritual.

It’s likely that these arguments may be rooted in a Christian feminist allegation during the 1970s that the Jewish People invented the patriarchy and that Judaism is the source of society’s sexism, a claim which appeared to the Jewish community simply as a feminist version of classic Christian antisemitism.

Regardless of the source of the criticism of mikvah, this perspective very well may be the case for some women, at the same time, it would not reflect the entirety of the Jewish woman’s experience. Perhaps mikvah is more meaningful than one might think. Why would women continue to practice a law through the ages, even during times when performing any Jewish ritual could incur a death penalty from the non-Jewish authorities? If Jewish women were so oppressed by this seemingly ancient tradition, they would have dropped the ritual at the first opportunity, and there were numerous occasions throughout Jewish history to do exactly so (e.g. the Greek Hellenization, Roman occupation, Spanish Inquisition, etc.). Perhaps the reason this mitzvah continues to exist, even thrive, in a postmodern world is because this ritual is much deeper and meaningful for Jewish women. Perhaps the practice of mikvah was a conscious choice made Jewish women throughout history. Mikvah may just be the secret of the Jewish sisterhood, a sisterhood that both empowers women as well as gives them the feeling of equality in a patriarchal world.

If this positive perspective is true, mikvah may be a great historical example of feminism and sisterhood. The halacha of mikvah has been traditionally passed on to women, and many women see their fulfillment of the ritual at the very center of their religious identity. Of course, going to mikvah would be different for each woman. Context as well as environment can have a significant impact on a woman’s attitude to the arrival of her mikvah night. Some might see going to mikvah at night as exciting and even mysterious, while others may feel with anger and resentment for an obligation that would require them to go out late at night in the freezing winter or to pass through a dangerous side of town, etc. (Wasserfall, 1999). In some communities in Israel, women would see this ritual as either patriarchal (institutionalised by men) or increasingly politicised (Cicurel, 2000).

In any case, contemporary studies of Jewry rebut claims that Jewish women are oppressed in this regard.  Scholars have found that American Jewish women who are mikvah users do not have a significantly different negative view towards menstruation than non-mikvah users. Additionally, researchers found that mikvah users felt significantly more inter-menstrual arousal than non-mikvah users (Siegel, 1986). In fact, many observant American Jewish women see mikvah as an enhancement to their family life (Wasserfall, 1999). This finding may lend support for the Jewish understanding of the concept of mikvah as a tool for revitalising the marriage with passion (Boteach, 2000).

We see that the practice of mikvah is one Jewish women throughout the ages were proud of, and even today, it is a practiced embraced by many, a rite seen as a secret of Jewish sisterhood, a key to Jewish survival.


Boteach, S. (2000). Kosher Sex: A Recipe for Passion and Intimacy. Harmony Books.

Cicurel, I. E. (2000). The Rabbinate versus Israeli (Jewish) women: The Mikvah as a contested domain. Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women’s Studies & Gender Issues, 164-190.

Siegel, S. J. (1986). The effect of culture on how women experience menstruation: Jewish women and Mikvah. Women & Health, 10(4), 63-74.

Wasserfall, R. R. (1999). Women and Water. Menstruation in Jewish Life and Law. pp.1 – 14.

Neither Haredi nor Modern Orthodox: Defining Chabad On Their Own Terms

Neither Haredi nor Modern Orthodox: Defining Chabad On Their Own Terms

330px-Haredi_JudaismDefining the Chabad-Lubavitch movement has been a thorn in the side of Jewish sociologists since at least the 1960s. Chabad does not fit into any of the neat categories used by those studying contemporary Orthodoxy. It is very clear to those studying the movement that while the group is essentially a Hasidic sect, it cannot be simply labeled as “Haredi” as one may comfortably do with groups like Satmar, Bobov and Belz. On the other hand, it would be a quite a stretch to count the movement as part of the “modern Orthodox.”

The more sociological categories for contemporary Orthodoxy are those of “church” and “sect,” better known as the church-sect typology. These two technical categories should not be confused for their non-sociological definitions and are measured as ideal forms of religious organization. The categories are used by sociologists to explain the fundamental differences between the modern Orthodox from the Haredi. Again, Chabad slips between the two labels as the institutions and members of the Chabad movement cannot all fit into either category. Israel-Jerusalem_Day

Simply put, Chabad cannot be a “sect” in the sociological definition of the term as the Chabad houses, and the Jews who belong to them, are not isolationist by any measure, but rather one of the most inclusive forms of Orthodox institutions. On the other hand, Chabad communities display much of the same patterns as other Haredi communities (members may be very devout, insular and rejecting of the secular world), thus striking itself out as a “church” for not compromising its ideals to ensure greatest social cohesion.

Here’s a wonderful quote from Charles Liebman, the late American-Israeli sociologist from his 1965 essay in the American Jewish Year Book, “Orthodoxy in American Jewish Life” where he lays out an interesting definition of Chabad:

“The relationship of its followers to the Lubavitcher movement may best be described as one of concentric circles around the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menahem Mendel Schneersohn, with the inner circle located predominantly, but not exclusively, in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, where the Rebbe lives and the headquarters of the movement is located….”

“The phenomenon of non-Orthodox Hasidim (President Zalman Shazar of Israel is the outstanding example) is troublesome to many in the Orthodox camp. They wonder how a presumably ultra-Orthodox leader can find such affinity with and arouse such sympathy among unobservant Jews, and whether he has not in fact compromised some essential demands of Orthodoxy in order to attract this great following.”

“The Lubavitcher movement, however, can only be understood on its own terms, and it does in fact stand outside the Orthodox camp in many respects. The movement does not recognize political or religious distinctions within Judaism. It has refused to cooperate formally with any identifiable organization or institution. It recognizes only two types of Jew, the fully observant and devout Lubavitcher Jew and the potentially devout and observant Lubavitcher Jew. This statement is often cited as a charming aphorism. In fact, it has tremendous social and political consequences. In every Jew, it is claimed, a spark of the holy can be found. The function of the Lubavitcher emissaries who are sent all over the world is to find that spark in each Jew and kindle it. From the performance of even a minor mitzvah, they argue, greater observance may follow. Thus, every Jew is recognized as sacred, but no Jew and certainly no institution outside the Lubavitcher movement is totally pure. Consequently the Lubavitcher movement can make use of allies for particular purposes without compromising its position. It can follow a policy of expediency because it never confers legitimacy on those with whom it cooperates.” (pp. 80-81)

Interestingly, more recently Dr. Adam Ferziger suggested that sociologists of Jewry had exhausted the usefulness of applying the church/sect typology to Orthodoxy (that is, Orthodxy in general, not just Chabad). These two labels, states Ferziger, no longer offer accurate insight into the nature of American Orthodoxy. Among his main points for why use the typology needs to be reassessed is the changing relationship of Orthodox Jews (the “sectarians”) and non-Orthodox, that outreach (kiruv) pioneered by Chabad and the modern Orthodox have been adopted by the Haredi communities as well. Still, practically, the litvak and the hasid are still considered Haredi, the modern Orthodox remains modern Orthodox, and Chabad continues to play the misfit in the Orthodox typology.


Ferziger, Adam S. “Church/sect theory and American orthodoxy reconsidered.”Ambivalent Jew—Charles S. Liebman in memoriam, ed. Stuart Cohen and Bernard Susser (2007): 107-124.

Liebman, Charles S. “Orthodoxy in American Jewish Life.” The American Jewish Year Book (1965): 21-97.

Education and Sharing Day: The Lubavitcher Rebbe Through The Eyes Of American Presidents

Education and Sharing Day: The Lubavitcher Rebbe Through The Eyes Of American Presidents

By Dovi Seldowitz

Among the interesting achievements of the Chabad movement has been the establishment of a rather peculiar annual political custom; for the past thirty odd years, the President of the United States has proclaimed Education and Sharing Day[1] on the calendar date corresponding to the Hebrew date of the eleventh of Nissan, the birthday of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. The proclamation is not limited to party, both democrat and republican presidents have practiced this ritual. In fact, a number of these presidential proclamations accompanied congressional resolutions, signed by both Democrat and Republican representatives, making the recognition of the Rebbe’s one of those things the two parties can actually agree on.

A little known fact regarding this celebration is that the presidential proclamations on each successive Education and Sharing Day are not standardized. Each year, new statements are drafted for the sitting president, so, for the most part, no two proclamations will be exactly alike. Also, the themes emphasized by each president has varied somewhat. Even though the purpose of the day is to commemorate the Rebbe’s contribution and teachings regarding moral education and social responsibility, various other themes appear in the statements. Here are a small sample of the themes mentioned in various presidential proclamations:[2]

2015 – President Obama emphasized the Rebbe’s promotion of education for girls and women, noting that the Rebbe established a Jewish organization for women and directed his teachings of service and scholarship equally to young girls and boys, and quoting the Rebbe’s “there must be a girl” comment regarding educational materials that depicted only boys.
2007 – President George W. Bush noted the Rebbe’s request that society should “make a new commitment to kindness,” and that the Rebbe helped to establish education and outreach centers offering social service programs and humanitarian aid around the world.
2000 – President Clinton stated that the Rebbe’s understanding that both secular education and spiritual training contribute enormously to human development led him to provide young people with fresh opportunities for academic, social, and moral enrichment through the educational and social institutions he established, helping these young people develop into responsible and mature adults.
1992 – President George H. W. Bush stated that under the Rebbe’s leadership, members of the Lubavitch movement have worked to promote greater knowledge of Divine law, recognizing that “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” And that Lubavitch has promoted knowledge of the Biblical injunction to assist those who are needy.
1989-1990 – President Bush noted Chabad’s work in spreading knowledge of the Noahide Laws. The proclamation famously states that “Ethical values are the foundation for civilized society. A society that fails to recognize or adhere to them cannot endure. The principles of moral and ethical conduct that have formed the basis for all civilizations come to us, in part, from the centuries-old Seven Noahide Laws….”
1985 – President Reagan stated that the value which the Rebbe exemplifies is love: love of wisdom, love of our fellowman, and love of our Creator.
1978 – President Carter’s statement followed a congressional resolution mentioning the Rebbe’s call for a “year of education,” and includes a call for Americans to mark the day in “such manner as reflects their commitment to education and their recognition of its importance to the welfare of this Nation.”

Today, over thirty years since its inception, Education and Sharing Day is marked each year by the President of the United States, however, this day is not an event very well covered in the mainstream media. This may be due in part to its irregular commemoration, being that the Hebrew and English calendar dates are constantly in flux, or, for whatever reason, media outlets – and the general American public – have seemed to forgotten this single day on the American calendar dedicated to education. Notwithstanding the lack of this day’s public celebration among regular Americans, Education Day USA is a terrific milestone for a Chasidic group, numbering perhaps in the tens of thousands, whose leader has received this high level of attention from each American president since Jimmy Carter. As for years to come, we may expect the day to continued to be marked by unique presidential proclamations, commemorating both the Rebbe’s historic legacy as well as the concerns of the present day.

[1] The day is officially titled “Education and Sharing Day, U.S.A.” though it was first titled “Education Day, U.S.A.” in 1978, and 1983 through 1991, but also called “National Day of Reflection” in 1982.
[2] See, “Proclamations: Presidents of the United States mark Education Day U.S.A.” Chabad.org.

Passover in Chabad: Personal Transformation and Social Acceptance

Passover in Chabad: Personal Transformation and Social Acceptance

By Dovi Seldowitz

Passover, the Jewish holiday that celebrates the Jewish People’s redemption from slavery in ancient Egypt, is heralded as a key Jewish festival for Jews world over. For many Jews, the Pesach Seder will be one of the only traditional Jewish events attended that year. Chabad teachings regarding Passover emphasize the message that the Jewish People’s transition from slavery to freedom is one that can be applied in one’s everyday life. Leaving Egypt (Yeztiat Mitzrayim) is understood as a human struggle to change oneself for the better, to force oneself to step beyond one’s comfort zone and strive to become a better person.[1]

Personal change is understood by sociologists as the exceptional cases in role theory. Sociologically speaking, one acts and identifies in a particular manner which is actually laid out by the society s/he lives in. To change one’s ordinary mode of behavior would require a concerted effort to change to the social setting allowing for a new form of behavior. Sociologists see personal change in terms of the individual striving to manipulate his or her personal affiliations to fortify the identities that had given him/her satisfaction in the past.[2]

What is interesting about Chabad is that transformative change is idealized and even celebrated each year, expressed in the form of the rabbinic tradition that “in each and every generation one must consider as if he or she personally left Egypt.” Chabad’s emphasis on personal transformation is reminiscent of the change sought after in psychoanalysis and other forms of therapy. In Chabad, while personal growth is advocated all year round, the message of change is especially resonant in the Chasidic teachings of Passover.

Chabad philosophy regarding personal development typically sees any change occurring as the result of the Chasid meditating on particular teachings and committing him/herself to acting in a different manner. Perhaps what is not entirely emphasized is how the Chasid plans on dealing with the social repercussions of such personal change. Can the individual’s intention to alter his or her behavior overcome the pressure exerted by his or her peers to continue acting as before?

The annual celebration of Passover in Chabad, replete with teachings of personal change and development, may assist the Chasid seeking to transform personal habits into more refined modes of behavior. A social recognition of a change imperative would allow those seeking to change to do so without the standard pressure of peer disapproval. One might find it easier to resolve to change when one’s peers generally accept that in this season one really ought to do so.


[1] See for example, Eliyahu Touger, “The Exodus: An Experience of the Present As Well As the Past,” Timeless Patterns in Time, Sichos in English, 1993; Eliyahu Touger, “Sichos Shabbos Parshas Va’eira, Rosh Chodesh Shvat 5722,” Lekutei Sichot, Sichos in English, fn. 55.

[2] See, Peter L. Berger, Invitation to Sociology: A Humanistic Perspective, Doubleday, 1963, pp. 119-120.

The Multicultural Chabad: Trends of Ethnic Diversity in a Chasidic Movement

The Multicultural Chabad: Trends of Ethnic Diversity in a Chasidic Movement

By Dovi Seldowitz

Ethnicity amongst Jews may be crudely conceived as a simple divide between East and West. Eastern Jews consist of both Sephardic and various Oriental groups (referred to generally as “Mizrachim”) of the Mediterranean region and parts of Asia. The Jews of the West are the Ashkenazim originating from Russia and most European countries.[1] Chabad, a movement that began in White Russia and whose early followers may be presumed to be all Ashkenazi, has in the last century begun to blur the old lines of Jewish ethnicity in a mix of activist efforts, integrating Jews of various backgrounds under the banner of the movement.

Ethnic diversity in Chabad is fairly unique among the Chasidic movements, other groups may include non-Ashkenazi adherents, but Chabad appears to have the highest proportion of such members. Chabad Sephardi and Mizrachi Jews include those hailing from North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia. Chabad influence is felt in various particular communities such as the Yemenite community in Israel, the Moroccan diaspora in France and Bukharian Jews in New York.

Outreach attempts by Chabad to directly reinforce attachments to Judaism amongst Sephardi and Mizrachi Jews are not recent stories. The very first Chabad emissary sent out by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson was to Morocco, in 1950 (the Moroccan effort was actually first initiated by the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, shortly before his passing).[2] Chabad activities in Bukharian communities began even earlier with the emissaries of the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Sholom Ber Schneersohn, prior to World War One.[3]

For sociologists and other social scientists studying Chabad, a significant but limited amount of scholarly material exists on the state of ethnicity in Chabad; only a single study examines Chabad’s ethnic diversity using quantitative measures.[4] Other sources examine the interactions between Chabad and a particular Sephardi or Mizrachi group.[5] Chabad’s attitude toward Jews of various ethnic backgrounds is quite inclusive; Chabad’s outreach and its Chasidic philosophy has lead to the integration of Ashkenazi and non-Ashkenazi families in daily life in the Chabad community. These families have been joined together by sharing a common ideology, participating in the same communal events, educating their children in the same schools and allowing them to join in marriage. What has yet to be explored is the existence of a cross-acculturation, how traditional Sephardi and Mizrachi life and culture may have influenced or been incorporated and adopted by Chabad communities.

The Chabad movement has long sought to strengthen the identities of Jews in Sephardi and Mizrachi communities. This multicultural trend in Chabad has been the result of emphasizing the movement’s Chasidic philosophy and ideology over its geographic roots. Chabad communities themselves have become ethnically diverse on account of the movement’s outreach efforts which led to the integration of Ashkenazi and non-Ashkenazi Chasidim. This initiative that began some hundred years ago has translated today into the multicultural heritage of many Chabad Chasidim today.

[1] This crude geographic measure is obviously limited as many Ashkenazi Jews migrated to Israel (and other Middle Eastern countries) centuries ago, and non-Ashkenazim have lived in various parts of Europe alongside their Ashkenazi brethren. This measure also omits African-Jewish groups.
[2] See, “1950: Leadership,” The Life and Times of the Rebbe, TheRebbe.org (Chabad.org).
[3] See, Naftali Loewenthal, “Lubavitch Hasidim,” The YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe, YIVO Institute for Jewish Research (yivoencyclopedia.org), August 27, 2010.
[4] See, Charles Shahar, Main Report: A Comprehensive Study of the Ultra Orthodox Community of Greater Montreal (2003), Montreal, Canada: Federation CJA (Montreal), (2003): pp. 7–33. Shahar’s study found that one in four Chabad households in Montreal included at least one Sephardi parent.
[5] See, Moshe Shokeid, Children of Circumstances: Israeli Emigrants in New York, Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1988, pp. 139-160; Laurence D. Loeb, “HaBaD and Habban: 770’s Impact on a Yemenite Jewish Community in Israel,” New World Hasidim: Ethnographic Studies of Hasidic Jews in America, ed. J.S. Belcove-Shalin, SUNY Press, (1995): 69-85.